German Troops to Leave Incirlik


BERLIN — When Turkish government officials repeated to German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel their refusal to allow German parliamentarians unconditional access to their troops at Incirlik base, it was the proverbial straw that broke that suffering camel’s back. Gabriel had travelled to Ankara on June 5 in a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise solution to the conflict that has strained relations, both bilateral and within NATO, to an unprecedented degree. After talks with both Foreign Minister Mevlùt Çavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gabriel made clear that Germany would have no choice but to withdraw its troops and relocate them. “There is no decision, no concrete plan,” he said, but there was also no alternative to transfer. Çavusoglu for his part stated that, although German parliamentarians could visit troops at the NATO base at Konya, “at the moment the conditions do not exist” for them to be allowed in to Incirlik. It was expected that within days the government and Bundestag would deliberate on the matter and opt for relocating the contingent to Jordan. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen had already explored the option in Jordan and all that remained were the formalities of procedure.

Piling Up the Straws

How could it come to this point? The controversy began a year ago in the wake of the Bundestag’s deicison on June 2 to recognize the Armenian genocide. Turkey reacted by refusing visiting rights to a delegation of German parliamentarians to Incirlik, where 260 German troops, 6 Tornadoes and fuel tankers are stationed as part of the fight against IS. In September Berlin found a compromise formulation to deflate the impact of the resolution, which led to Ankara’s permission for one visit. Turkey resurrected the ban in response to Germany’s refusal to extend the witch-hunt against persons considered to be in cahoots with the Gülen movement which Erdogan blames for the attempted coup last July. Turkey’s stance toughened further after Germany granted political asylum to Turkish officers threatened with prosecution as pro-Gülenists. In addition, Turkey charged Germany with harboring terrorists, with reference to Kurdish organizations, accused of sympathies for the PKK. To add fuel to the fire, in February of this year Turkish authorities arrested Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish journalist, as a pro-terrorist, and followed this up by detaining a German translator on similar grounds.

Since the German army is an army of the Bundestag, it is imperative that parliamentarians have unconditional access to “their” troops, and for this reason there can be no backing down on the part of Germany. After consultations between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister von der Leyen, it was decided to engage NATO, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (whose doctrine is that Turkey is “a key country for security in Europe”) decreed the issue to be “bilateral.”

The NATO Dimension

Although the geopolitical considerations behind this are obvious, the proclamation raised eyebrows in view of the fact that Turkey had recently blocked the decision for NATO’s collaboration with Austria in the Balkans. Austria is not a NATO member but had been cooperating with 500 soldiers in NATO’s Kfor mission in Kosovo. After Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz lobbied for terminating EU entrance talks with Turkey, Ankara responded by blocking this operation.

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A further reason to involve NATO would be the fact that, in Erdogan’s anti-Gülen purge, an estimated 150 of 300 Turkish officers have been fired from their positions in NATO headquarters, or as military attaches in embassies, according to Spiegel magazine. The same source reports that 270 mainly high-level officers in total had been fired by Erdogan, creating a collapse in quality, as the replacements were often less qualified and lacked foreign language capabilities. This has security implications, as they may be tasked with sensitive operations like air space surveillance and secret defense planning, according to Spiegel.

That notwithstanding, NATO steered clear of the dispute. Turkey would allow German Parliamentarians to visit German troops at Konya, because it is a NATO base and as such no formal permit is required; NATO must simply inform Turkey of the plan. But Incirlik is another matter.

A Bilateral Non-Solution

Thus it came to be that Gabriel made one last attempt to reach a solution on the bilateral plane, and left Ankara empty handed. Judging from public statements made before the talks and the tone struck at a joint press conference of the two foreign ministers, the atmosphere was not very congenial. Çavusoglu had said matter-of-factly of the foreseeable withdrawal, “We welcomed them when they came and when and if they leave, we will bid them a friendly farewell.” The reason for the Turkish visiting ban provided by the foreign ministry was that Germany had given Turkish officers political asylum. Furthermore, Germany was not doing enough against the PKK. “Our expectation,” the Turkish foreign minister said, “is that our friend will not become a refuge for our enemies.” Gabriel made clear that in his country it is “independent agencies and courts that decide on asylum,” not politics. In reference to the case of Deniz Yücel, Çavusoglu conceded that he could see it was very important for Berlin. “But,” he added, “one thing is certain and Germany knows it only too well: the charges against Yücel do not have to do with journalism but with terror,” adding that the Turkish judiciary was independent in its activities. He accused the Europeans of sending journalists to Turkey as spies, in order to play the “press freedom” card once they were caught.

The German foreign minister was explicit in identifying underlying factors to the strife. “For some time,” he said, “it has not just been a question of the joint fight against IS, but also about domestic politics. We cannot allow our soldiers to become the playthings of the political climate.” He refused to budge on the demand that Bundestag members have unlimited access to the troops; “If Turkey insists that they cannot, then what remains is a decision for the transfer.” He expressed his desire to “arrange it with our Turkish colleagues peacefully and without great fuss.”

As if to underscore the animosity, Prime Minister Binali Yilderin made it known that scheduling problems would prevent him from receiving Gabriel.

However, Gabriel did get to meet Erdogan for an hour, and it was, as he said afterwards, a “sobering” experience. “Relations are very tense,” he summarized. Erdogan had accused Germany of failing to prosecute terrorists. Gabriel concluded, “We have to take note of the fact that the Turkish government has a completely different understanding of the state of law than we do.”

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